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Year Zero in jobs market for blighted class of 2009

Most leading companies plan to reduce recruitment, forcing students to think again about their career prospects

Employment prospects for the "Class of 2009" leaving university this summer are becoming gloomier as major graduate recruiters cut back on the number of jobs they are offering, new research shows.

Most of the firms that take on university leavers have reduced the number of jobs they plan to offer final-year students this summer.

A survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters of the top 124 employers of graduates reveals 60 per cent have cut their planned intake since November.

Most firms were showing a "lack of confidence" about job prospects, according to the research. In all, 57 per cent of firms said they would be recruiting slightly or many fewer graduates than last year. Four out of five said they either felt the same or a slightly lower level of confidence about recruitment prospects than three months ago.

Asked what was the biggest threat to their recruitment plans, 73 per cent said the economic environment.

Overall, the research suggests, there will be a 5.4 per cent reduction in the number of graduate jobs this autumn.

The only positive news was that many firms said they were still accepting job applications from students. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, said: "Though there is certainly nervousness among recruiters, not all have shut up shop. A significant number are still looking for bright graduates."

The research follows another survey which revealed that this year's finalists are the gloomiest ever about their prospects. More than 50 per cent said graduate-type employment opportunities are "very limited".

This is the worst level of pessimism expressed in 15 years of graduate careers surveys conducted by market researchers High Fliers.

Its study of 16,357 final-year students revealed that just over a fifth (21 per cent) are targeting a graduate job for this autumn. A further 15 per cent expect to do so by the time they complete their finals.

A further one third of finalists say they will have to accept any job they are offered, and one in six have applied to employers they admit they have no interest in. More than a quarter (26 per cent) say they will sit the recession out, and carry on with postgraduate studies.

The average student debt has gone up in a year from £11,600 to £15,700, and the average graduate starting salary is likely to be £22,300.

If they survive all this, 42 per cent believe any job offer made now may be cancelled before they can take it up, and 48 per cent are concerned they will be made redundant within their first year of employment.

For the first time, teaching emerges as the most sought-after profession with 13.7 per cent seeking a job in the classroom. The number looking to go into investment banking has declined by 31 per cent this year.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, said: "Final year students due to leave university this summer are gloomy and frustrated about their employment prospects.

"Having invested an average of £15,000 in their degrees, tens of thousands are now set to leave university without a job offer, and feel they have little prospect of finding work in the immediate future."

The brightest news is perhaps the thought that if the economy hits a deflationary spiral, the Government may have to pay students back on the loans they have taken out. Interest charges on loans are pegged to inflation. A decision on whether there will be a payback, given falling prices, will be made in September.

Tales from two universities in Cambridge

Interviews by Amol Rajan

'Nobody is going into banking': Sarah Ruthven, 22, 3rd year, classics, Pembroke College, Cambridge University

I'm going to law school next year and I do genuinely want to go, rather than just doing it because I'm unsure what I want to do, which I'm sure is why a lot of people convert to law. But law has a bad image now, because of the recession: people seem to assume that all law is corporate law and therefore must be evil because it's associated with money. That sentiment is quite widespread. Nobody in my year is going into banking, or if they are they aren't admitting to it publicly, whereas a few years ago they might have boasted. The careers fair was traditionally full of stalls representing law, investment banking or management consultancy. This year it's populated by public sector types and charities. Lots more clever people are applying for fewer and fewer jobs in the public sector because of the solidity there. I can see why that's more appealing than it used to be.

'I've got rent and bills to pay so I'll need a fill-in job': Nicola Palmer, 23, 4th year, arts management, Anglia Ruskin University

I did this course because I thought to myself 'I'm never going to make it as an actress, but I want to work in the arts.' Before this, I spent 12 months building up my CV working for an international theatre company but they didn't extend my contract – in other words, they made me redundant. I've started applying for local jobs, and not just in the arts, but there is naff all going at the moment. My whole time as a student I've worked for Argos because I had to. There is rent and bills to pay and I'll have to get a fill-in job if I'm to keep above board.

'How am I meant to get a job in the arts?': Kristina Frencescotti, 23, 4th year, arts management, Anglia Ruskin

The arts is a hard enough sector to get into, and now the market for jobs has been flooded with people a lot more qualified than me. It's not just that there are fewer jobs, it's also that all the people made redundant are applying for jobs below their level, which they're over-qualified for – jobs I want. How are you meant to get in? Funding for the arts is the first thing to go in a recession too. We had a woman from the arts and business department come in the other day and tell us how awful things are. That really tells you something. And every economics lecturer is saying the recession is going to last for years. I need to get a job very, very soon.

'As I read that computer games firms are closing, it's difficult to stay positive': Dominic Hemp, 22, 3rd year, computer games and visual effects, Anglia Ruskin

It's really quite scary – the computer games industry is fairly niche so getting in isn't easy anyway. But now people on my course are reading that some of the biggest firms are closing down, and it's difficult to stay positive. Free Radical [a video games developer] going into administration felt like the final straw. From what I've read it seems there are only a few decent companies left, and most of them are in trouble too. Certainly very few are hiring. In a way I regret doing this degree – obviously it's three years of a lot of fun but you do ask yourself why you bothered getting into so much debt. I've worked part-time for Hughes [the electrical goods store] so I'll have to try to get some more shifts there. I just hope and pray I'll be OK.

'I'm going to go travelling': Mischa Foxell, 20, 3rd year, classics, Pembroke College, Cambridge

I'd like eventually to work as a human rights lawyer but next year I'm going to do some travelling and work in Cameroon with Voluntary Service Overseas. It feels like the doom and gloom has caused a lot of finalists to reassess their priorities, and perhaps that's no bad thing. A lot of people in my year are talking about going into public service, for example, maybe applying to the Civil Service or becoming teachers. I don't think they're all being idealistic suddenly; I think a career in the public sector has prestige and offers stability. Certainly there's a lot of distrust of banks. And I'm no economist but it looks like it'll be four or five years before the recovery kicks in, so maybe the next few years will be boom time in more ethical sectors. Maybe we should welcome that.

'The repercussions for our generation are immense': Giovanni Menegalle, 22, 4th year, modern and medieval languages, King's College, Cambridge

I really resent all this stuff about how this recession is giving us our comeuppance. There's no divine providence at work here, it's just a bad time for the economy, and that sucks. I'm probably going to Berlin to do a Masters in German next year, and might have have done that anyway, but if there was any doubt in my mind about doing it straight away, the recession killed it. A lot of people I know are doing academic work next year who might have postponed it for a few years. But they're bringing it forward because it feels like jobs won't be so easy to come by. The repercussions for our generation are, I think, immense: middle-class people have been spending money like idiots – money they don't have. Now we've been reminded that money actually has a value.

'I've had every job you could imagine': Makis Maniadakis, 33, 4th year, creative music technology for media, Anglia Ruskin

I was working for a media services company up here in Cambridge but two weeks ago my contract expired and they didn't renew it. I've gone from working to being unemployed very suddenly and it really affects your studies. I've had every job you can imagine, from cleaning to waitering. It's not a case of studying part-time and working full-time, or even vice versa. You do both full-time, and simply don't sleep. I'm hoping to stay in England and get a job in the music sector, though it's always been very tough and is tougher now. I do think some people are being lazy though: if you want to get a job you can get a job; it's only if you start being selective that you're in trouble. Students graduating this summer shouldn't be too selective.

'It feels like Armageddon': Moya Sarner, 23, 4th year, French and Italian, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

It feels like Armageddon out there. This feels like the worst possible time to be graduating. I want to be a journalist but everything you read about newspapers or in the media pages says how bad things are; how it's not been this bad for decades and so on. Hearing that this is the worst situation since the Great Depression is quite terrifying as a graduate. On the one hand I think my generation are lucky because we don't have mortgages and families to pay for but on the other hand we're coming on to the job market at exactly the wrong time. The recession still feels like a slightly abstract concept because we're in a bubble here; but every finalist knows that when you get outside it's very chilly. Most wannabe journalists are going for jobs in advertising or PR, which are second choices, but even those industries are damaged. I'm doing a postgrad course in journalism, because continuing in education is now the preferable option.

'One option is to emigrate': Syed Mohammed, 21, 4th year, engineering, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

I'm lucky in that I'm going more into the electrical and information side of engineering, which has not been so badly hit as other sectors of the industry, but then even I haven't got a job sorted for next year. My friends who are studying civil or mechanical engineering are terrified because they're going into sectors like construction or property that have been decimated. A lot of engineers here are trying their luck with management consultancy instead. The other option is emigrating: a few people in the year above us went to Dubai last year but now we're reading reports that even Dubai is suffering, and some of those guys are coming home. We're fortunate because we have an industrial co-ordinator who helps link us to opportunities in industry. For now I'm just applying everywhere, though with exams I've not had enough time.

'I think I'll go home to live with my parents': Kirby Reeve, 22, 3rd year, film and television studies, Anglia Ruskin

I applied for a few jobs here but I'm now thinking I might just take a year out. I'll probably head home to Lowestoft and live with my parents for a bit – I'll have a few months to relax and save a bit of cash before hitting the job market hard. I've never thought it was essential to get a job straight after university and I think a lot of people in my year are going to take time out that wouldn't have, just because things are so hard out there. It's certainly going to take longer than usual to go from studying to working for a while. The main way to get into television is to start off as a runner but you could just end up doing that forever, and I certainly don't want to do that. I get the impression I'm going to have to do a lot of work experience before getting a real break.